Shops Fight Battle for the Belly

Health, convenience and the tranformation of food shopping from an errand into an experience lead to tough competition among specialty food retailers in India

Published: 26th July 2015 05:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th July 2015 05:09 AM   |  A+A-

How about making this Sunday special? Food wise, we mean. For breakfast, you can have falatel patty with romaine lettuce and pita bread or perhaps juicy, melt-in-the-mouth vegetable Gyoza dumplings with a raw papaya salad. For lunch, there’s Thai style chicken salad tossed with pickled vegetables followed by fettuccine in parmesan and blue cheese sauce. Unless you’d rather have the spicy Balinese chicken with jasmine rice and Asian greens? 

Shops2.jpgNo, you don’t need to hotfoot it to any fancy restaurant or be a globetrotter addicted to ingredient-shopping to put together these meals. Domestic gourmet retailers like Ruci & Idoni, Nature’s Basket, Mason D’Gourmet, Le Marche, Nuts ‘n’ Spices and Foodhall stock all that you need right here in high street markets.

They’re waging a battle for your belly, literally. Hass avocados, juicy plums, classic wines, fresh, frozen and marinated meats, assorted cheese and pastas, rare spices, herbs and preserves, cherry-picked from across Europe, Australia, Asia, and the US, are sitting on shop shelves across India. One call, and they can be delivered to your doorstep.

“The gourmet food industry has evolved. Food shopping has gone from being an errand to experiential purchasing over the last decade. The key reason for this is the discerning customer. The new-age consumer is far more experimental in his or her choices and relatively less bound by convention or popular choices,” says Mohit Shetty, MD of Godrej Nature’s Basket, which is one of the pioneers of gourmet food retailing in India.

Started in 2005 as a fresh food store, Nature Basket has morphed into an omni-channel gourmet retailer with 33 premium stores on high street locations in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.

“Customers for gourmet foods are growing. As people travel more and get exposed to alternate cuisines and ingredients, they develop a finer taste for food. They now demand flavours or tastes that are unique and more sharply differentiated,” explains Shetty.

Echoing his sentiment is Shashwat Goenka, sector Head, Spencer’s Retail Ltd, which retails fine food under the brand Epicuisine: “People have also started experimenting with their taste buds. Retailers are playing a big role in making new cuisines popular by making the products available. Initially, people used to look at those products with curiosity, but over a period of time they started buying them,” he says.

For Future Group, which holds a significant presence in retail and fashion sectors, specialty foods hold the key. “We have collaborated with ASA, Copenhagen’s spice specialists and others to bring best quality food and ingredients to customers,” says Kishore Biyani, MD of Future Group which runs Foodhall. Launched in 2011, Foodhall has been designed for food lovers as a one-stop shop that offers an aesthetic blend of Indian and Western flavours.

The chain has stores in Mumbai, Bengaluru, New Delhi, Pune and Gurgaon and has plans to enter more cities. Each store has live demo counters, sampling activities and monthly thematic festivals that introduce customers to new nuances of fine food.

According to Technopak Advisors, the size of the gourmet food market in India is currently pegged at Rs 13,700 crore and is growing at 20 per cent. The market is broadly divided into cafés, casual and fine dining, and retail. A standard gourmet store has about 5,000 stock-keeping units, which range from sauces to cereals, concentrates, cold cuts and exotic vegetables. One important factor that’s contributing to the popularity of gourmet food is health. “Customers have become more health conscious and are increasingly shopping for probiotic, organic, low-fat and high-fibre products,” explains Seshu Kumar, national head, merchandising & sales at BigBasket.com, an online grocery store that is operational in seven cities.

Another aspect aiding growth is the convenience factor. Here e-commerce and m-commerce are helping gourmet food get ahead. Big Basket, for instance, is  running a pilot project in Bengaluru wherein it sells a ready-to-cook gourmet dish with pre-measured ingredients in a single pack, under the brand name Happy Chef. “Instead of buying all the imported ingredients required to make that one dish, which can be expensive and time-consuming, we are offering one pack with all the ingredients and the recipe,” Kumar explains. Not only is this more economical than buying ingredients independently, it is also easier to use since all the items needed are already sliced and diced, before packaging. 

Many of the offline retailers also have online arms. “Over time, we have evolved into a robust online platform that is feature rich and clearly among the finest online grocery portals in the country. Two year ago, it used to take us 48 hours to make a delivery. Now, we take three hours,” says Nature Basket’s Shetty.

But, there are still some challenges to overcome. Sourcing food and retaining freshness is a big issue. “We work closely with importers in terms of giving our projections and sometimes liaison with suppliers directly to ensure that the products are available in shortest possible time,” says Spencer’s Goenka.

Shetty says the Nature Basket team works twice as hard to ensure that all imported products have at least 65-70 per cent of their shelf life intact at the time of purchase. “We deal only with legitimate importers who work with quality producers and bring in high-quality products. We refrain from working with fly-by-night operators who either bring in end-of-life products or are known to manipulate product labels,” he says.

The margins in food are relatively lower than those in non-food categories as food is perishable and requires higher maintenance, say all the retailers. “But gourmet food has a higher margin than regular food items,” says Goenka, without disclosing actuals.

If there’s one snag, it’s location: all the gourmet retailers are located in the metros currently. But give it time and enhanced demand, and the hass avocado will be sitting in every pocket of the country.

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